Digging was traditionally the best and only way to prepare a garden bed. However, in 1977, Esther Dean, an Australian author, and avid gardener, established a new technique referred to as no-dig gardening or no-till gardening. In the US, it is known as a lasagne garden. This garden sits above the ground, so you don’t need to do the hard work of digging up the soil when preparing your garden.
Here are 13 tips on how to make a new garden without digging:
- Pick a flat spot that gets plenty of sunshine.
- Decide on the design of the garden.
- Choose the material to use for the bedding.
- Prepare the ground.
- Put layers of newspaper or cardboard on the garden space.
- Add a thick layer of alfalfa hay.
- Spread a thin layer of compost or manure.
- Add a layer of straw and lightly water the bed.
- Add more manure or compost.
- Lay more straws over the manure.
- Plant your seeds or seedlings and then water them.
- Give your garden bed routine maintenance.
- Bed down the garden after harvesting.
The rest of this article will dig deeper into preparing a garden without digging. You can also read more on the given tips and the step-to-step guide to preparing this type of garden.
1. Pick a Flat Spot That Gets Plenty of Sunshine
The first step to preparing a no digging garden is to pick the ideal spot. Even though you will not be digging, the plants will still need sunlight to thrive. When choosing the best spot, you need to know the ideal conditions for the plants.
Some plants, like leafy greens, thyme, artichoke, garlic, and peppermint, can tolerate partial shade, while tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers need full sun to thrive.
The location of your no-dig garden can be over your raised garden, lawn, or on top of concrete.
2. Decide on the Design for the Garden
Although this is a no-dig garden, you still need a design that will give you easy access to the plants. If the garden occupies a large area, you can leave some walking space in the middle to allow easy movement and accessibility to the plants.
Besides the walking space, you also need to come up with a design that works with what you intend to plant. For example, if the spacing between plants is wide, you need a larger no-dig garden, while plants that don’t need much spacing can grow in smaller beds.
3. Choose the Material To Use for the Bedding
The materials you use for your no-dig garden will determine the health of your plants. Plants have traditionally relied on soil nutrients and other microorganisms to grow. The materials you choose to use should provide your plants with the nutrients they would be missing from the soil.
The following materials are ideal for the no-dig garden bedding:
- Newspapers or cardboards
- Alfalfa hay
- Straw bales
- Wood chip mulch or sawdust
- Kitchen scraps or worm castings
Once you have the materials ready, you will have an easier time preparing your no-dig garden. Don’t forget to get planks of wood to create boundaries for your garden and hold the newspapers or cardboards in place.
This video offers great insights on the materials to use and how to layer them when making a no-dig garden:
4. Prepare the Ground
You probably wonder why you need to prepare the ground when you intend to have a no-dig garden, but it is necessary, depending on where the garden will be located. If you are setting up the garden over a pre-existing raised garden, you don’t need to prepare the ground. However, some preparations are necessary if you are setting up the garden on your lawn or concrete ground.
Before setting up a no-dig garden on your lawn, you should mow the grass and use blood or bone fertilizer. The fertilizer will speed up the rotting of the grass since it will not be getting light for photosynthesis. You can also use bone or blood fertilizer on your plants.
If the no-dig garden is on concrete, you need to prepare a 3-4 inches (7.62 – 10.16 cm) layer of small branches, stickers, and dry leaves. This allows air to flow into the garden from below and facilitates drainage.
5. Put Layers of Newspapers and Cardboard on the Garden Space
Lay down at least ¼ inch (0.64 cm) newspapers in the area that you expect the garden to cover. Ensure you overlap the edges to prevent weeds from growing too close to your no-dig garden. You can also use cardboards instead of newspapers. The idea is to keep light from the ground beneath.
Cardboards and newspapers are ideal because they smother weeds and grass. They also encourage decomposition, and when you water this layer, earthworms will work their way through it as they loosen the layers of material used.
If you have a no-dig garden bed on a lawn or raised bed, you need to prevent weeds or grass from growing in your garden. The newspapers and cardboards eventually decompose, but weeds and the grass will also die because they block light from getting to the ground underneath.
Place planks of wood at the edges to hold the newspaper in place and maintain the garden’s shape.
6. Add a Thick Layer of Alfalfa Hay
Spread a 4-inch (10.16 cm) layer of Alfalfa hay over the newspapers or cardboard. Alfalfa is a flowering legume usually used in preparing animal feeds. Alfalfa hay is the ideal option for a lasagne garden because:
- It’s rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
- It helps organic matter to decompose.
- Alfalfa also breaks down quickly.
- It’s food for microorganisms found in compost.
- It stimulates plant growth.
- It absorbs nitrogen from the air.
- Prevents harmful nematodes from attacking plant roots.
- The layers absorb water and keep feeding plants even during the drought season.
If you have access to Alfalfa hay, you can use regular hay, straw, or even sugarcane mulch. Remember to leave walking space in the middle of the garden. However, you should cover this area with cardboard to block light and prevent weeds from growing and spreading to the garden.
7. Spread a Thin Layer of Compost or Manure
Spread 2 inches (5.08 cm) of manure or compost over the alfalfa hay or sugarcane mulch. If you have worm castings or kitchen scraps, you can add some to this layer. This is the only layer where you can add kitchen scraps, so you shouldn’t miss the chance to use them at this point.
The reason is to keep the scraps hidden from vermin that would otherwise attack your garden if the kitchen scraps are at the upper layer.
8. Add a Layer of Straw and Lightly Water the Bed
Add a 3-4 inch (7.62-10.16cm) layer of straw. Lightly water the bed to hold the hay in place and also to kickstart the decomposing process. However, you should be careful not to add too much water because the lower layers are producing moisture as they decompose.
9. Add More Manure or Compost
Add another layer of manure or compost. You should avoid adding kitchen scraps to this layer because it will attract vermin, like rodents, to the dig-in garden bed. However, you can add worm castings to this layer of compost to help improve drainage, aeration, and water retention.
10. Lay More Straws Over the Manure
Lay more straws, about 3-4 inches (7.62-10.16 cm) over the manure. If the layers need to decompose further, especially if there is the risk of grass and weeds growing, you can cover the no-dig bed with polythene. This step is critical if you intend to leave the bed for some time before you start planting.
When choosing the polythene to use, consider getting a 600 gauge polythene or thicker. This way, no light will pass through it. Alternatively, you can go for landscape fabric because it is cheaper, lighter, and easy to cut. However, you will need to cover the bed with cardboard before using the fabric.
11. Plant Your Seeds or Seedlings and Water Them
Now your no-dig garden is ready for your plants. Use your hands to make holes for your seedlings or seeds. Consider how big the plant grows when spacing the holes. Fill the hole with compost before planting the seeds or seedlings.
Water in well, and keep watering as you would any other garden. If possible, add seaweed extract to the water once in a while to boost plant growth.
The multiple layers formed when creating a no-dig garden mimic lasagne, hence the name lasagne garden. By the time you get to the upper layer, the garden would be 13-15 inches (33-38 cm) deep. Managing the garden will be easier if you edge it with wood planks.
12. Give Your Garden Bed Routine Maintenance
Once you have planted your seedlings or seeds, routine maintenance of a no-till garden is not different from that of a regular garden. However, you need to have several things in mind when maintaining the no-dig garden.
- Stepping on the growing areas will destroy the soil ecosystem you set up to boost productivity. You will also compact the soil. This is why you need to prepare a no-dig garden that is easily accessible. You should leave a path between the gardens instead of preparing one large one that will be hard to maintain.
- Always ensure the soil is covered with mulch or compost. Bare soil is susceptible to erosion and nutrient loss. If you intend to use the same bed annually, keep adding compost to protect the underlying layers from damage. Collect falling leaves, lawn cuttings, and other material routinely so you can compost them in preparation for the next planting season.
- Don’t water your no-dig garden as you would have a traditional garden. The mulch and compost layers will store most of the moisture.
- It is normal for the first harvest to be lower than expected. As the compost and layers of hay keep composting, the yield will improve. You are unlikely to have a weed problem because you are not turning the soil over to expose hidden weeds to sunlight.
- Since the compost is rich in organic matter, and the layers keep decomposing, you may not need to fertilize. However, if you need to, use very little fertilizer. Over-fertilizing may cause root damage.
- Avoid using organic waste full of weeds. The heat produced during the composting process may not be enough to kill the weeds. They may start sprouting in your no-dig garden when the conditions. You should also avoid using plant materials infested with pests and diseases.
- When choosing manure to use, only use the waste from herbivores. Waste from carnivores may be responsible for pathogens that will attack your garden and compromise the health of the layers you have created.
13. Bed Down the Garden After Harvesting
Your no-till garden can provide you with food through several seasons, but once you get the final harvest before winter, you’ll need to bed it down. Cut back whatever plants you have left until they are just above the top layer. The root system will break down and enrich the soil in preparation for the next planting season.
Advantages of a No-Dig Garden Bed
The lasagne garden is becoming increasingly popular, not just in urban areas but also in rural settings. The following are the advantages of using the no-dig garden bed to grow your crops.
- It’s just like natural soil. The garden mimics the natural soil structure.
- It gives the soil a break, especially if it begins to degrade due to overuse. When soil remains undisturbed, soil microbes have a chance to break down the soil and build its nutrient content. Plants use up a lot of the soil nutrients and, over time, depletes them forcing you to fertilize the soil frequently to make up for the degenerating web of life in the soil.
- It’s pest free. No-dig gardens tend to be free of pests and diseases.
- It supports the ecosystem in the soil. The soil is home to many organisms. Regular tiling of the land destroys these organisms, yet their population is important for the health of the soil. For example, worms and bugs build tunnels in the soil as they move. This helps with aeration and soil drainage.
- The layers of mulch created when preparing the no-dig help the underlying soil to remain soft. The plant roots easily work through the soil, and this helps the plants to thrive.
- Weeds in no-dig gardens are not as problematic as those in tilled land. When you dig up the soil, you expose hidden weeds to light, so they start germinating and take over the entire garden. Most of the weeds in no-dig gardens come from seeds dispersed by wind and birds. Fortunately, mulching helps to inhibit their growth.
- Saves time and energy. Digging by hand is time-consuming and labor-intensive.
- The layers created when making a no-dig garden helps to save water. Mulching helps to reduce evaporation and encourages water retention. This saves you water and keeps your plants hydrated, especially during droughts.
Why Is No-Dig Gardening Better?
The decision to abandon traditional land tilling for no-dig gardening may not be easy. However, the no-dig garden bed is better than digging, especially if the soil needs a break after intense use.
No-dig gardening is better because you have greater control over the conditions under which your plants grow. The layers of hay, manure, compost, food scraps, and wood mulch are aerated, organic, and nutrient rich. These layers also retain moisture, so you don’t need to water your plants frequently.
No-dig gardening is better for you, your plants, and the soil. Regular tilling of land disrupts the soil structure and its ecosystem. When you leave the soil to recover, worms and other microbes get the chance to rejuvenate the soil and make it productive.
Challenges of No-Dig Gardening
Although no-dig gardening has several advantages, it also has some challenges. The following are some of the disadvantages of no-dig gardens.
- It requires a lot of preparation. Unfortunately, you cannot wake up and decide to prepare a no-dig garden with the hope of having your seeds or seedlings planted by the end of the day. Some materials, such as cardboard, are readily available and are easy to set up. However, you need to prepare the compost, collect the hay, wood chips, and other materials and layer them before planting.
- Some materials, such as hay, need a lot of fertilizer to speed up decomposition.
- No-dig gardens can be costly, especially if you have to get compost materials away from your home.
- If you have limited space for your no-dig garden, you may be forced to avoid some crops, especially leafy vegetables, which occupy a lot of space at maturity.
- Unless you can produce large quantities of mulch and compost, no-dig gardening is impossible for large areas.
- Lasagne gardening is a challenge in wet areas because the decomposing layers will attract snails, and they will feed on your plants.
Despite the challenges, the benefits of no-dig gardening outweigh the disadvantages. Fortunately, you will enjoy a healthy, bumper harvest with proper planning, especially when you plant when the weather is conducive.
Preparing Compost for a No-Dig Garden
Once you decide to use the no-dig gardening method, knowing how long it will take the layers to be ready for planting will help you to know when to initiate the process. The compost is critical for the garden and will determine how soon you can start planting in your no-dig garden.
The condition of the compost will determine how long you will have to wait for the materials to decompose.
When composting, you need four main components:
- Organic matter
The organic matter should be a mix of brown and green organic material, in a ratio of 1:1. The brown material, made up of twigs, dead leaves, sawdust, and manure, supplies carbon. The green organic material, usually made up of lawn clippings, fruit rind, seaweed, eggshells, and plant trimmings, provides nitrogen.
You can speed the composting process by shredding, moving, or chopping. When preparing your lasagne garden, if the compost still has large materials, you may need to leave it for some time to allow for further composting before planting.
If your material is mainly made up of brown material, you can add a handful of 10-10-10 commercial fertilizers to introduce oxygen and speed up decomposition.
Moisture is also critical for the material to decompose. However, you should avoid getting the compost too wet as the material will rot too fast instead of decomposing into organic matter. Add a little water if the leaves, sticks, and other materials are too dry.
You should also add water every time you add brown material into the compost.
Turning the pile every two weeks will help redistribute moisture, oxygen, heat, and bacteria through the compost. The size of the pile, type of materials, and how often you turn the pile will determine when the compost will be ready for use.
If you do not have the time or energy to keep turning the compost, you could also use a tumbling composter available at garden stores and online.
This video provides tips on how to compost at home.
When To Start Preparing a No-Dig Garden
Although you can start preparing a no-dig garden at any time, fall is usually the best time because organic materials are available in abundance. You can collect the pile of falling leaves and waste from the garden clean-up for your compost.
The material will decompose during winter, and it will be ready for your no-dig garden when the spring season comes. You can choose to prepare the layers in spring and plant during summer if you so wish. However, you can also opt for a spring lasagne garden.
No-dig gardens are easy to prepare when you have all the necessary materials. The way you create the layers also matters because you will need to alternate the brown and green material to help with decomposition and nutrient distribution. When you know how to use the necessary materials, no-dig gardening is easier to manage and requires little effort.